This is my hope, anyway: that to sit and observe, as we are encouraged to do in permaculture, can yield in time a kind of intuitive grasp of the landscape. Of its patterns and natural boundaries, its shifting moods; glimpses of its rhythms and of the personality that animates it. That to meditate on a place in this way can grant a clearer view of its ready life and abundance, so that I might engage it with a sort of holistic logic and love.
As I say, this is my hope – I sometimes feel a certain conceit even in articulating it.
This week we had our first Wild Harvesting class, and we spent a good bit of the day talking and thinking about this complicated relationship. A central tenant of permaculture is the idea of ‘zones’ – a continuum that ranges from zone 0, the house or heart, to zone 5, which is wilderness free from human intervention. Most of our focus in the program so far has been in the low zones, 1 and 2, those which see intensive use and which respond to a designer’s patient eye and a protractor. But for this class, we are playing in the high and wild fringes.
The word ‘steward’ comes from the Middle English of the 15th century: stig, meaning ‘house’, and weard, a ‘guard’. The idea of ‘stewardship’, the responsible use of resources, arrived later (with its specific ecclesiastical underpinnings), informing the important work of North American conservationists like Aldo Leopold. But we are sitting in a classroom on southern Vancouver Island, on the unceded Coast Salish Territory of the W̱SÁNEĆ Nation – Indigenous land that sometimes meshes uneasily with contemporary sustainability models.
For most of human history in this place, an intimate and inseparable connection with the natural world has been culturally embedded. But colonialism brought with it post-Enlightenment traditions of humanism and instrumental thought; the privileging of market forces and the commodification of natural resources; the preeminence of the individual as a rational actor who extracts value from the land. Contemporary ideas about stewardship and sustainability in some ways continue to trace these same ontological contours.
This tension is explored by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer in her 2014 book, Braiding Sweetgrass. She begins by acknowledging that “in order to live, I must consume”. The question, then, is how to consume in a way that does justice to those non-human entities that take up the other side of this difficult moral dance.
Wall Kimmerer offers some answers, given in the context of wild harvesting: only take as much as you need, and only take that which is given. Never take the first or last. Ask permission. Never take more than half. The purpose should be worthy of the harvest.
For me, as a settler (and as a neophyte wild harvester as likely to pick hogweed as parsley, if not for my plant ID book), this guidance feels both essential and intimidating. How do I know if something is ‘given’? What can I possibly offer in return? And so I return to a permaculture maxim, determined to observe and to cultivate patience – and to offer gratitude – knowing that the answers may yet come.
Seen in this way, it becomes clearer how Western ideas about sustainability can sit imperfectly with Indigenous knowledge, for they often exclude the concepts so central to Wall Kimmerer’s understanding: ceremony, reciprocity, and the raw intimacy of human relationships with plants, animals, and other entities. Wall Kimmer asks, for example, that we listen to the stories of the plants so that we might reestablish this connection between nature and human beings.
With Mark Lakeman’s recent workshop on Permaculture, Place-Making, and Planet Repair still at top of mind, I also thought of the urban and political dimensions of foraging. In our Wild Harvesting class we spent the last part of the afternoon at Elk Lake, gathering fallen cottonwood boughs at the edge of an ephemeral pond that lapped at the roots of the poplars towering grandly overhead. Cottonwood buds have powerful antimicrobial properties and can be infused in oil to make a salve. Gathering the buds in this halfway-rural setting we garnered a few curious looks, but that was it.
But in the city, political-economic structures dictate more directly who benefits from nature and its management. Privileging specific recreational activities and other narrowly-defined ‘acceptable’ uses for urban forests, for example, suggests a ‘correct’ way of engaging with nature. If we opt instead for a lens of food sovereignty or health justice, however, we might better recognize the right of local people to control their own health systems, to harvest food and medicine in public spaces in a way that has profound cultural reverberations.
I was reminded, too, of the takeaways from our visit to the Victoria Compost Education Center a week earlier. Marika, the director, talked about the pervasiveness of ‘away culture’ in the West, where a central impetus is convenience and the unclean or undesirable is hidden away (recall Alexis Shotwell’s discussion of purity from our mulching class).
Because we tend not to bear the immediate cost of our consumption, it’s an easy problem to duck. But geopolitical and economic tides are shifting: China, long a destination for overseas recycling, announced in the new year that it will stop accepting most foreign plastic waste. Hidden externalities aside, it is always ‘cheaper’ to landfill waste, and so it can be challenging to muster the public or political will to implement proper composting initiatives at home.
But even where the public desire is present, it remains susceptible to greenwashing: regulatory regimes and standards around ‘sustainable’ packaging are often poorly implemented or nonexistent, and the shift to commercial, industrial-scale composting has created compliance and quality issues. Questions remain as to whether microplastic residuals present in municipal compost can bioaccumulate in plant tissue, and what the long-term effects of this might be.
There is probably some wisdom to be taken from Mark Lakeman here: the value in downloading composting to the neighbourhood level, where inputs can be more closely monitored and the community can reap the benefits directly. But ultimately Marika’s prescription centers around practices rather than technologies – encouraging food rescue and food waste reduction, for example. Returning to Robin Wall Kimmerer, we hear the same message in another way:
“In consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition,” Kimmerer says. “Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness […] Gratitude doesn’t send you out shopping to find satisfaction; it comes as a gift rather than a commodity, subverting the foundation of the whole economy.”
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.